Verdict on `Amy': guilty of cloning

Review: With a plot eerily similar to `Providence' and reflecting shades of `Ally McBeal,' CBS' new sitcom feels like de ja vu.

September 18, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A young, professional woman goes to the big city and has considerable success on the job. But she feels her personal life is empty.

So, she leaves the fancy office in the big city and returns to her smaller hometown on the East Coast. She even moves back into the house in which she was raised as she pursues a less corporate, more community-oriented job in her profession.

That's the story line for last year's surprise midseason hit from NBC, "Providence," with Melina Kanakaredes, as Dr. Sydney Hansen, leaving the ritz and glitz of her Beverly Hills plastic surgery practice to return to Rhode Island and general practice in a community clinic.

It is also the very premise of "Judging Amy," a new CBS sitcom starring Amy Brenneman ("NYPD Blue) as Amy Gray, a young lawyer (Harvard Law) who quits her corporate law job in New York City to return to her hometown of Hartford, Conn., and a job as judge in juvenile court. The only differences: Amy has a 6-year-old daughter, Lauren (Karle Warren), while Syd is single. Amy's mom (Tyne Daly) is still alive, while Syd's mom (Concetta Tomei) died in the first episode but lives on as a chain-smoking nudge who drops in from the Other Side periodically to hassle Syd. (Amy's mom just happens to be a chain-smoking nudge, too -- though, she is trying to quit.)

Isn't it rich, and aren't they a pair? Send in the clones.

I fear we are on the cusp of a whole new genre here, my friends: the young, professional woman who returns home. And, while you might detect a note of scorn in my voice for how shamelessly "Judging Amy" apes "Providence," I am not mocking the notion of a new narrative for young professional women. In fact, if such a genre does establish itself, it could be a big deal, sociologically.

Since the debut of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970, the main prime-time narrative had young women going to the city and finding fulfillment at the office, with co-workers as their true family. You can see its sorry postmodern remains today in "Suddenly Susan," which is still on NBC's schedule for reasons known only to General Electric and God.

Thirty years is a long time to last -- that story line must have connected with something deep in the psyche of millions of women. So how do we explain the pleasure 10 million or so female viewers (according to Nielsen Media Research) are now taking each week in Dr. Sydney Hansen's journey back to Providence, which seems to be a reversal, if not repudiation, of the path Mary Richards took?

Let's think about it later, OK? For now, you probably just want to know whether to watch "Judging Amy" when it premieres tomorrow night.

I love "Providence." And I love Tyne Daly. But, I have to tell you, I don't like "Judging Amy" much at all.

The writing is solid, the production values are impressive and the acting ranges from OK (Brenneman) to splendid (Daly). Why don't I like it?

Dropping all pretense of critic-talk and speaking from the visceral region where viewing decisions are really made, I hate the character of Amy Gray. She's a privileged, spoiled, barely competent brat who thinks the world was created to serve her impulses, whims and vague desires.

Making matters worse, because Brenneman is the executive producer, every frame of the hour-long pilot seems constructed to make us want to eat her character up with a spoon. I hate her, hate her, hate her.

Mom is there to wake her up and press her judge's robe and tell her what "it means to be a judge." Bruce Van Excel (Richard T. Jones) is there as her court officer to set her docket, brief her on each case and generally tell her how to act like a judge. Vincent (Dan Futterman), her artistic but underemployed brother, is there to provide a sympathetic ear and free nanny service for Lauren.

The whole world is there to serve Amy and just thrilled to do it because she's so fabulous. What a self-absorbed, regressive fantasy for adult women! This is beyond the false Virginia Slims, Madison Avenue promise, "You can have it all." This is, "You can have it all, and you don't have to work for it." Other people will do the hard work for you just to bask in the radiance of your favor.

Did I say I hate Amy Gray? I do. In fact, I can't remember the last time I hated a character this much.

Wait, yes I can. It was that other privileged, spoiled, barely-competent, Harvard-Law, legal brat, Ally McBeal. And we all know how poorly her show fared, don't we?

`Judging Amy' When: Sunday night 8 to 9 Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

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